"There's nothing 'funny' or 'weird' about having a child as a single mother," snapped one solo mom in a sharply worded email to me a couple years ago. I'd posted to a national online list, looking for single moms by choice willing to tell me what had been "hard/good/funny/weird" about their experience, for a book I was writing on the topic.
I was six months pregnant at the time, a soon-to-be single mom via anonymous-donor insemination, and I had to respectfully disagree. Sure, bringing a child into this world is about as serious as you can get. But the bumpy road to babymaking can be pretty amusing, and even more so when you go about it in as unconventional a way as I did. C'mon--syringes full of frozen sperm? Shopping for DNA online, as if you were buying a sweater? It's weird! It's funny!
Thankfully, at least a few million people agree with me. The new movie Baby Mama, which features Saturday Night Live and 30 Rock star Tina Fey as a 37-year-old single woman setting out to become a mom, was #1 at the box office its opening weekend, when I paid $72 to go see it (ticket plus babysitter). It was my first theater movie since my son was born, and I made the investment figuring it would be really funny--and that I could really relate.
Fey starts out with the same syringe method I used--which at this point in the history of reproductive technology could practically be called "the old-fashioned way"--but learns there's a problem with her uterus. Her sister suggests using a surrogate. "No, it's weird! It's for weirdos!" protests Fey's character. "Becoming a mom is not like one of your executive decisions," the sister retorts. "It's real life. It's messy."
Indeed it is. Though given the superficial and stereotypical treatment the alternative baby-making process gets in Baby Mama, you'd never know it. Don't get me wrong--I enjoyed the movie. Especially the bit where Amy Poehler pees in the sink. Hilarious. But as funny as it is, Baby Mama still trots out all the tired stereotypes about what sort of woman chooses single motherhood.
"When other women were getting pregnant, I was getting promotions," Fey's uptight businesswoman character says, in a line that feels like it was written 20 years ago. "He wanted to marry me and I wanted to focus on work," she says of an ex. "I made a choice," she admits, and now, nearing 40, feels it's "too high-risk"--note the ball-busting Wall Street terminology--to wait for Mr. Right.
Much of the film's humor revolves around what a control freak she is--way too controlling to get a date, or even be interested in one. It's only when the white-trash surrogate mother she's hired dresses her up sexy and gets her roaring drunk that she's able to loosen up enough to approach a good-looking guy. And even then, she's so domineering and detail-obsessed simply ordering a Philly cheese steak from a stand that her date calls her a dick. "I mean that affectionately," he says.
Fey plays this desperate, emotionally stunted caricature in a fresh way--somehow, she remains soft and likeable, we're behind her in her quest for motherhood, and there's no suggestion that if she were a real woman she'd quit her job--but it's crystal clear why at 37 this chick has neither man nor child. And then, I don't want to spoil anything, but let's just say that at the end of the movie, traditional social norms are--phew--pretty much upheld.
The critiques of Baby Mama find it to be superficial and predictable, lacking fully drawn characters and the kind of emotional depth that takes a funny sketch and makes it a great movie. And that's where I start to lose my sense of humor. Because this material is both hilarious and highly emotional--there was no reason for Baby Mama to be shallow.
I found plenty to laugh about as I encountered exploding semen vials and was twice mistaken for an animal breeder ("I swear, it's always you semen people who get the late deliveries!" one FedEx clerk loudly exclaimed).
Like Fey, I found myself running around containers of frozen sperm--only her petite container looks like a cross between an upscale Thermos and a stainless-steel sex toy. In reality, she'd be carrying a liquid nitrogen tank that's about two feet high and looks like a bomb. Which is funnier, in my humble opinion, especially when you're navigating the post 9/11 "If You See Something, Say Something" sidewalks of New York City.
Some women I interviewed in my book, Knock Yourself Up, had to figure out how to juggle a date with a condom and a date with the stirrups. You gotta laugh. But there's often a lot of pain involved in the process. It's weird and funny, yes, but also incredibly painful to be picking your baby's father from the information on a 2-page PDF.
Indeed for most women, the process of deciding to pursue single motherhood is excruciating. On top of the usual fears and doubts experienced by any prospective parent, single moms by choice have to ask themselves hard questions: Is it really time to discard my dream of having the partner first, and then the baby? Can I handle this financially and emotionally? How can I procreate with a perfect stranger? And the most crucial and painful question of all: Is it fair to bear a child who'll only have one parent and no dad?
It's deep. In addition to a lot of soul-searching (thankfully, there are some reassuring answers to even the most painful questions), the process typically involves both conflict and bonding with friends and family. In many cases, the prospective grandparents help pick out the donor, in a modern twist on the arranged marriage. And often it's the most unexpected person--the 70-year-old grandmother from Kansas--who's the most supportive of this newfangled way to have a baby. Weird, right? And funny. And sweet. You'll laugh. You'll cry.
And let's take a look at that rich-control-freak stereotype. Sure, there are some women who put their careers first and only just woke up to the idea of a baby, but most have always wanted children, like I did. Some were married and unexpectedly divorced before kids arrived, or found out, too late, that their husband didn't want to be a dad. Some are younger and have reproductive issues, meaning they have to have a baby now or never. Some are rich but most are middle class--I talked to teachers, social workers, even a veterinary technician. Wouldn't a vet tech who knocks herself up be a little fresher than an uptight businesswoman?
So, by all means, go see Baby Mama. It's funny. But it could have been so much better if it had chucked the stereotypes and taken its inspiration from the real women across the U.S. who have set out on the same difficult yet ultimately joyful path to motherhood.
Louise Sloan is the author of Knock Yourself Up (Avery/Penguin, October 2007), a book that features the real voices and experiences of the women behind the trend of "single motherhood by choice."